The Battles at Cross Keys and Port Republic - by Private John S. Robson
We had another brush with
Harrisonburg, on the 5th of June, in which General
Ashby was killed,
which cast a gloom over the whole army, and was felt to be an
irreparable calamity by every man in it. Our division, under
Ewell, halted at Cross Keys, on the 7th, and made arrangements for
battle. In the old times there had stood, at the intersection of several
roads, an old-fashioned tavern, upon the swinging sign of which was
painted two keys crossed, from which the name was derived; and now it
was to be made famous by Ewell's fighting division, and given an
enduring name on the page of history.
On Sunday, June 8th, 1862, we were ready again for our usual Sabbath exercises, and Fremont was on hand with his congregation. The 52d regiment got a fair share of business in this engagement, and lost a good many men. Major Ross was among the wounded, so was Lieutenant Samuel Paul, of Company D, whose leg was shivered by a shell, within five steps of me, which caused amputation. He has since been treasurer of Augusta county, and I have often thought I would like to be treasurer of something myself - but all the one-legged Rebels can't get their living the same way, and Lieutenant Paul - gallant soldier and good officer as he was - was equally as good a citizen, and deserves all the success he achieved. Lieutenant King, of Company B, was killed here, and we were quite willing for Fremont's men to retire when they had got as much as they wanted.
Our brigade was commanded in this battle by General George H. Steuart, and was posted on the left centre of Ewell's line, sustaining and repulsing four distinct charges, each made by fresh troops; but they were mostly Dutch, and we fought them to the best advantage, behind trees, which General Ewell's judicious selection of the ground gave us.
Fremont's Dutchmen were no match for the "foot-cavalry," and although General Ewell himself says he had less than 5,000 muskets, and Fremont's order to march, which was taken from an aid of General Blenker killed by one of Trimble's men, showed six brigades, commanded by Blenker, Milroy, Stahel, Steinwerh, and one other, of infantry, with one brigade of cavalry, numbering in all about 20,000, yet their dread of Jackson caused them to give way under slight pressure, especially when General Trimble struck them in flank.
General Forrest, the famous cavalry commander of Tennessee, was once asked a question as to the cause of his almost constant success in his cavalry operations, when other commanders so frequently failed, and his answer was: "Well, I got thar first, with the most men;" and that in a sentence, gives the key to Jackson's generalship, if you add to it the Cromwellian motto, "Trust in the Lord, and keep your powder dry." We left the battle ground of Cross Keys at midnight, and took the road to Port Republic, where Jackson, with his division, had been holding Shields in check; but the gallant Irishman was now coming on again in such force as to make a concentration of our forces necessary. General Fremont reported his total loss at Cross Keys fight as 2,000, while General Ewell's official report of our loss was 300 killed, wounded, and missing; a very encouraging affair to Ewell's boys, who held the battle-ground, and equally discouraging to Fremont's who were forced to retreat.
The village of Port Republic lies in the angle made by the junction of the North and South Rivers, which here form the south fork of the Shenandoah, along the east side of which General Shield's was moving. The Cross Keys road crosses the North River by a good bridge, into the town, and another road runs northeast from the town by a ford in the South River, and down the south fork, by Conrad's store, to Luray. A third crosses at the same ford and running southeast, through Brown's Gap, in the Blue Ridge, leads to Charlottsville. I don't think it any harm to give this much geography, even if all my readers should also be posted in the big histories, but I am satisfied that many will read this who never saw any of the aforesaid big histories; and they will thus be better able to comprehend the successful performance of all the points of Jackson's magnificent strategy.
The position then was, Fremont at Harrisonburg, Shields at Conrad's Store - between which all the bridges were destroyed - and Jackson at Port Republic, forming a triangle, with sides fifteen miles long. Behind Jackson was the road through Brown's Gap, clear and open, so that he could fight them separately or fall back to Charlottesville and Richmond, and his operations up to this time had caused the troops of McDowell, Fremont and Shields to be withheld from McClellan, and at the same time put his own army within easy reach of Richmond should General Lee desire his assistance.
Fremont with his 18,000 and Shields with his 15,000, would have been too much odds for Jackson's 12,000, to which he had been reduced since leaving Winchester; and he had no idea of permitting them to double on him, but he had got Fremont whipped by Ewell so easily, at Cross Keys, that he determined to double his own team and give Shields a trial. "Stonewall" was a thorough and consistent Christian, so far as I know, and was reported to do a great deal of praying, but he certainly did practice a great deal of deception on these two estimable gentlemen right here. We crossed the bridge over the North River early in the morning of June 9, 1862, and set it on fire as soon as everything was over - thus preventing General Fremont from coming to Shields' assistance - but the ford of South River, owing to recent rains, was too deep for us, and we made a bridge of wagons and planks to get over on. Jackson's men were already engaged with the enemy and needed Ewell's assistance right away, and here was illustrated the influence of trifles on important events.
We could see the "Stonewall Brigade" and Colonel Harry Hayes' gallant 7th Louisiana, with the splendid batteries of Poague and Carpenter hotly fighting, but heavily overmatched, and we were hurrying as fast as we could to their assistance when a plank in our wagon-bridge slipped out, almost breaking up our means of crossing, and did delay us considerably, so much so that by the time we got over, formed our line and commenced our advance upon the enemy, we met General Winder's troops retiring in confusion.
The 44th and 58th Virginia, by General Ewell's directions, made a hot attack on the enemy's flank, but could not hold him long, and the whole line fell back to a piece of woods, losing one of Poague's 6-pounders and a good many men. General Shields put a splendid 6-gun battery in a magnificent position to sweep the field, and I don't think he had an imported Dutchman in his army. They were all Western fellows, and stuck to their ground as if they belonged there, and it is my candid opinion that they were descendants of folks who had, years before, emigrated to the great West, from the Shenandoah Valley. Our advance, under General Elzy, was through a fine field of wheat bordering on the river bottom, chin high, and their minnie balls clipped the grain worse than reapers. It was a very bad job of harvesting, the boys said - a harvest of death it proved - and much as we tried to make it short, the time dragged slowly enough, until it did seem that Shields was fully a match for "Stonewall" Jackson.
The two commanders maneuvered their men under fire, just as the old-time warriors used to do before long range weapons came into use, but still that terrible 6-gun battery held the key of the battle, and when General Taylor rode up, Jackson turned to him and said: "Can you take that battery? - it must be taken!"
Taylor's answer was to gallop back to his brigade, and pointing with his sword to the enemy's guns, called out, in a voice like a bugle-blast, for thrilling wildness, "Louisianans, can you take that battery?" They answered, with a yet wilder thrill, "We're the boys that can do that, General. You can bet on your boys!" and the gallant son of "Old Rough and Ready" led them forward.
Three times the Louisiana brigade drove the enemy back and captured the guns, but were as often repulsed, in turn, by the splendid soldiers of Shields. Taylor turned savagely for another trial, and Jackson seeing that Shields was heavily re-enforcing his left to protect the battery, brought all he could to his own left, and as the Louisiana boys made their last assault on the guns, threw all he had on Shields' right, breaking it all up, and at the same time Taylor took those dreadful guns, again turned them on the enemy, and the victory was won; but, as Cowan said to the devil - "'twas claw for claw," and we had fought as fine a body of troops as there was on the Continent, fully justifying the assurance of the 6th Louisiana - an Irish regiment - who said, when Fremont was beaten the day before, "This isn't much, but look out for to-morrow, for Shields' boys will be after fighting." The battle of Port Republic was one of the most sanguinary of the war, and we lost nearly 1,000 men killed and wounded. I do not know the loss of the enemy in killed and wounded, but we captured 7 pieces of artillery with limbers and caissons, 975 prisoners, and more than 1,000 small arms. One of the prisoners said to us - "You fired over our heads at Winchester, but you fired under them here."
General Shields returned to Conrad's Store, but he was never routed, and stopped when Jackson did. He was badly crippled though, and Kernstown was atoned for, and the "Great Pathfinder," Fremont, was no longer able to act offensively in the Valley - except towards the citizens - but in this he was far superior in magnanimity to Milroy and others. General Shields was a favorite with the people among whom he operated, and treated them with consideration and kindness, but he was a terror when it came to fighting.
And now was accomplished the full purpose of "Stonewall's" strategy, for it was fully guaranteed that not another soldier could be spared from the defences of Washington to arrest McClellan in the Chickahominy, because of the unknown motions of the man who could disappear and reappear so suddenly and unexpectedly, and while making such audacious marches right into the jaws of his powerful enemies, deliver such fearful blows and get out whole.
The very uncertainty and mystery which hung around him was worth as army, for it kept an army of the enemy unemployed while waiting for Jackson to develop his plan.
Taken from: How a One-Legged Rebel Lives. Reminiscences of the Civil War: The Story of the Campaigns of Stonewall Jackson, as Told by a High Private in the "Foot Cavalry": From Alleghany Mountain to Chancellorsville: With the Complete Regimental Rosters of Both the Great Armies at Gettysburg, by John S. Robson